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A Custom Fit: Personalizing Experiences Using Technology

This is an extended version of an article that appeared in the May/June 2013 issue of Dimensions magazine.

Science center and museum professionals from around the world share their experiences using technology—including smartphones, barcodes, and radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags—to personalize the visitor experience.

The National Museum of Mathematics (MoMath) opened in New York City in December 2012. From the beginning, founder Glen Whitney had a strong vision of bringing math to the masses in a new way, but critical to that vision was the ability to tailor the experience for individuals in ways that would be meaningful to each person. And that meant customization—at many levels.

Static signage found in most museums was set aside, replaced with “smart” electronic kiosks. Using RFID tags, exhibits “recognize” visitors, displaying information in their language and at their desired level and depth of mathematical content. The first stop at a kiosk allows data entry; from that point on, visitors are addressed in a way that makes sense to them.

The electronic signage has additional benefits. Content managers have the ability to modify signage on the spot, incorporating great ideas from visitors or even correcting errors. What better way to customize a visitor experience than for a visitor to see his or her feedback incorporated immediately into the fabric of the museum?

The concept is in its infancy, and there are still kinks to be worked out. RFID antennae need to be exposed or repositioned for some exhibits, and visitors need to be oriented to a new way of interacting with information. But after two months of experience, MoMath remains committed and energized.

Cindy Lawrence, associate director and chief of operations
National Museum of Mathematics, New York City

At NorthernLight in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, we often design a virtual online “layer” that connects to every part of an exhibition, including exhibits, objects, and labels. Visitors can use this digital layer to create personalized online environments, customized to their personal demands, interests, social contexts, and knowledge level.

Even before visiting a science center or museum, the prospective visitor can use an app or website to connect to this digital layer and customize a planned visit. Inside the science center or museum, visitors can work with the digital layer in one of two ways. The first is through a personal (or borrowed/rented) device, such as a smartphone, which can scan tags or use a global positioning system (GPS) to establish a location-based experience. The second option is to let visitors identify themselves at each exhibit with a biometric identifier (e.g. fingerprints or irises) or a personalized tag (e.g., radio-frequency identification (RFID)). After their visit, visitors can retrieve and edit their personalized results on the internet and share their creations through social media platforms, such as Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Tumblr.

Here are a few examples of some of our personalized experiences:

  • With the app we are currently developing for the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam (reopening in April 2013), visitors can choose their own preferred route or receive a fully customized route based on a “Love It or Lose It” quiz to determine their personal preferences.
  • Our web-app developed for the Innovation Gallery at Amsterdam’s Science Center NEMO allows visitors to retrieve information by scanning Quick Response (QR) codes at exhibits with their smartphones. The web-app includes questionnaires where users can explore their sustainable lifestyle choices.
  • For the Centre of New Enlightenment (TCoNE) at Kelvingrove Museum, Glasgow, Scotland, United Kingdom, we have developed a digital adventure quest. Students ages 10 to 14 use a smartphone on a journey through the museum to discover their own strengths. Evaluation showed that the experience increased students’ awareness of their traits. As they exit, students watch a movie personalized to their group, incorporating their results and photos taken as they were participating in the experience.
  • We are now exploring ways to use in-classroom technology to personalize field trip preparation. Most Dutch classrooms are now equipped with digiboards. Connecting interactive digiboards to the virtual environment of the science center could allow teachers to make use of orientation programs and arrange field trip logistics. In addition, students could be invited to ask their own questions, prepare their own reports, and design their own plans for exploring the science center. Our trial of such a digiboard application is showing promising first results.

Esther Hamstra, content manager
NorthernLight, the Experience Company, Amsterdam, the Netherlands

In the 8,070-square-foot (750-square-meter) traveling exhibition Imitation, exhibits range from robots that imitate human behavior to counterfeit objects to spare parts for humans. The exhibition is a co-production of Museon, the Hague, the Netherlands; VilVite, Bergen, Norway; Expology, Oslo, Norway; and Technopolis, the Flemish Science Centre, Mechelen, Belgium.

Visitors taking part in the exhibition receive a wristband with unique RFID chip. The first time the wristband is used to activate an exhibit, visitors choose a language and type in their name, age, gender, and email address. From then on, each RFID-equipped exhibit recognizes the visitor. (In some past exhibitions, we used wristbands with a unique barcode to personalize the experience. For Imitation, we chose to work with RFID wristbands because they are a lot easier to scan.)

Visitors can keep track of their results in various experiments and activities and compare them with those of other visitors; this challenges them to do their best. Some exhibits encourage visitors to be creative and to produce their own images, sounds, and videos. Those are stored on a personal webpage that enables people to continue their experience at home and share their results with friends (e.g, through Facebook and Twitter). This sharing also generates free publicity for the exhibition.

An added advantage of the personalization is that we can track visitors to determine how many people took part in each exhibit, the average dwell time, and how these factors correlate to age and gender.

We strongly believe personalization is an added value for the visitor as well as for the science center and, although it is quite an investment, we intend to expand its use in our exhibitions.

Patricia Verheyden, experience director
Technopolis, the Flemish Science Centre, Mechelen, Belgium

The Natural History Museum of Utah, located along a popular hiking trail in the foothills of Salt Lake City, is a place where awe-inspiring views of the city’s built environment, the Wasatch Mountains, and the Great Salt Lake converge. The physical setting, as well as metaphorical ideas about trails, permeated our thinking during architectural design and exhibit development. We created an overarching trajectory through the building and exhibits, but we also offer myriad byways that invite audiences to choose their own trails each time they visit.

To enhance this personalized experience, we developed a set of digital tools that come together as the Trailhead to Utah—an award-winning smartphone guide that enriches experiences inside the museum, links to a personal portal on the museum’s website, and offers connections beyond the museum’s doors to sites throughout the state.

We opened the museum in November 2011 with four thematic “trails” in the system, to which visitors can link as they move through the museum. Each theme includes nearly 20 stops across all 10 permanent galleries and other public spaces. Early audience testing showed that the majority of users enjoyed the personalized experience and liked using their own devices. However, because the smartphone guide is nonlinear, the notion of “trails” inside the museum can be confusing. When visitors understand the broader Trailhead to Utah concept—an invitation and information to guide exploration throughout the region—enthusiasm is high. We believe the Trailhead has enormous potential for rich and authentic personal connections, and our evaluation and remediation is ongoing.

Becky Menlove, director of exhibits and public programs
Natural History Museum of Utah, Salt Lake City

Upon entering the 2,500-square-foot (230-square-meter) traveling exhibition Black Holes: Space Warps & Time Twists, visitors are prompted to create their own Black Hole Explorer’s Card. This system is intended to enhance visitor motivation and learning by promoting active engagement, increasing the personal significance of the material, and supporting continued learning beyond the museum visit. The exhibition was developed by the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Each visitor selects a nickname, such as Galactic Seeker or Techno Genius, from a list of 12 first names and 12 second names. As they move through the exhibition, visitors scan their cards to collect and record images, movies, and their own predictions and conclusions, via barcode technology. They also see their nickname and an avatar or their own photo at each networked station. An automated web-content authoring system creates a personalized online journal of their experience that they can access at home.

The Explorer’s Card system also facilitates evaluation by capturing the duration and depth of visitors’ participation at each station and a database of artifacts that visitors have created. In addition, the first and last interactive exhibits present visitors with a single, random, multiple-choice survey question from a bank of 25 items, thereby providing a source of pre- and post-visit responses.

Here are a few of our results, compiled both from the traditional summative evaluation and from our ongoing analysis of the visitor database:

  • Visitors who use an Explorer’s Card spend nearly twice as much time exploring the exhibition as non-card users and show evidence of significantly higher enjoyment and learning outcomes.
  • Visitors who self-identified with the nicknames Boy or Girl consistently spent significantly less time exploring the exhibition, while those who self-identified with the nicknames Eco, Techno, or Seeker consistently exhibited well-above-average dwell times. In addition, students who are given preprinted Explorer’s Cards with preselected nicknames and images demonstrate significantly less engagement compared with those who personally choose their own identity.
  • Overall, 10% of Explorer’s Card users visit their personal web journal, a high “take-up rate” among projects similar to this, but a rate that does prompt questions about better linking the physical exhibition to later reflection.

When exhibitions use technology both for personalization and for research data collection, these two goals can sometimes compete with each other. My two cents: err on the side of promoting visitor experience goals in your design decisions.

Mary Dussault, science education project manager
Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, Cambridge, Massachusetts

Heart Smart, a 1,500-square-foot (140-square-meter) exhibition, focuses on common risk factors associated with cardiovascular health. It includes opportunities for visitors to measure their blood pressure, take their waist circumference, calculate their body mass index (BMI), and take a lifestyle quiz. Other components explore heart-healthy behaviors, including stress management and physical activity. The exhibition was developed by the Miami Science Museum in Florida, working with the University of Miami and Jeff Kennedy Associates.

At a check-in station, visitors anonymously enter their own gender, age, and ethnicity/race information. Each visitor then receives a card with a unique barcode to activate each interconnected interactive station. They also construct a personal nickname like “Happy Girl” that identifies the unique user at each station.

Tailored personalized health feedback is a distinctive feature of this exhibition. Each of the four health interactive stations provides visitors with brief health risk appraisals, constructed using algorithms based on gender and age. The visitor is able to view personal results and feedback immediately or later on via our website by entering a coded number from their card.

The personal health risk appraisals make results salient for each visitor. Research shows that combining tailored feedback with health risk appraisals may influence one’s decision to make a behavior change. In a two-year follow-up, 86% of high school students who visited Heart Smart reported that the visit prompted them to think about making or actually make a lifestyle change. Fifty-five percent of students reported making at least one healthy lifestyle change because of their visit to the Heart Smart exhibition.

Sean Duran, vice president of exhibitions and design
Miami Science Museum, Florida

At the grand opening of VilVite in Bergen, Norway, in 2007, we could already invite our visitors to personalize their experiences. Based on a system platform developed with Expology of Oslo, Norway, visitors can use an RFID card to register, get a unique visitor ID, initiate experiments, and retrieve the experience on the VilVite website after the visit. The information is also available on terminals in the exhibition area. Video clips, pictures, and other data generated by the visitor are thus available after the visit for educational purposes or for sharing on social media.

Use of the personalization is optional in many of our approximately 40 educational programs. In our oil field exhibit, you can use the system to identify your own oilfield under the sea bed, exploit it by drilling, and then check out production costs and the value of the oil produced. Making your own weather forecast and watching the video clip afterwards is another popular exhibit using the system.

In one school program about energy production, students pedal a bicycle in order to produce the power needed to pump water through a turbine. The mechanical energy from the cycling is transformed into electrical energy. Both types of energy are measured and presented on a screen in real time as well as on a personal webpage. The students use the data to solve both physics and math problems back at school after the museum visit. All teachers surveyed gave the postvisit activities a score of 5 or better, on a scale of 1 to 6.

Svein Anders Dahl, managing director
VilVite, Bergen, Norway

Image courtesy the National Museum of Mathematics